Archive for Jessica Lange

The American Problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2019 by dcairns

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.

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Tickling the Rivalries

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by dcairns

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

It’s Worse When You Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by dcairns

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I’LL JUST GIVE IT THE GRIN

You know what’s a better film than you might think? Frank Mangold’s Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz vehicle KNIGHT AND DAY (not to be confused with NIGHT AND DAY in which Cary Grant plays a gay man as a straight man — it’s totally different, honest!) The movie wouldn’t be that good if it was just a romcom or just an action film, but it succeeds at both by combining them, and Cruise is amazingly well used — he plays a rogue spy who has either been framed for crimes against the state or else is batshit insane. Obviously, it will turn out that the Cruiser knows the whereabouts of all his marbles, but for the first half, the movie is an amazing amount of fun, playing the actors’ usual tropes and tricks — intense staring, manic grinning, furious running with pistoning little karate-chop arms — as simultaneously evidence of his movie-star heroism and a suggestion that he might be an incredibly dangerous maniac. The film sags a little at the end, mainly because it’s decided to let us know he’s OK, so half the joke is gone.

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THE APE-TH WONDER OF THE WORLD

You know what’s a worse film than you might think? The 1976 KING KONG. I know, you probably already suspect it’s terrible, and you may even have seen it, in which case you KNOW it’s terrible, but it is not actually possible for any mere mortal to know how terrible this film is. It’s awfulness cannot be contained in a human mind. You would need the skull of a forty-foot ape to encapsulate the wretchedness of the whole enterprise.

The positive aspects can be summed up rapidly. Hawaii looks nice. Although Jessica Lange mainly makes you feel embarrassed, the movie did sort of launch her career. Jeff Bridges demonstrates his awesomeness by managing to avoid ever appearing awful or awkward, in a movie where even Charles Grodin stumbles at times. But mostly Grodin is good too.

I guess Dino de Laurentiis had some kind of a great business mind, because he correctly deduced that the public would not pay to see a man in a gorilla suit, so a great juggernaut of ballyhoo was foisted upon the moviegoing public to convinced them that a 40 foot mechanical ape was going to maraud across the Panavision screen. It worked — I remember the queue round the block  at the Odeon, Clerk Street. I also remember thinking, “That looks a lot like a man in a suit,” and then, as Kong is exhibited in New York, “THAT looks like an unconvincing 40-foot mechanical ape.” As indeed it was.

The ape suit stuff is designed and acted by Rick Baker, and is probably as good a gorilla costume as audiences had seen. I would believe, if the film made it worth my while, that I was looking at some kind of man-ape. I just wouldn’t believe he was forty feet high. The foliage blowing in the wind behind him is blatantly miniature. He doesn’t move with the slomo heft of Godzilla (even though the big G is even more hilariously a man in a costume.) There’s an over-the-shoulder shot where his shoulder is transparent (an example of verfremdungseffekt that Brecht never thought off).

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IT ISN’T BESTIALITY IF HE MAKES THE FIRST MOVE

Baker’s performance is good, though he hasn’t quite worked out a convincing alternative to the authentic silverback’s knuckle-walking. Sometimes Kong seems to be merely out for a stroll. And there’s too much smiling. Willis H. O’Brien’s masterful Kong didn’t go in for smirking. Admittedly. the big mechanical head in the ’33 film was grinning maniacally, rather like Tom Cruise. But I never liked that head.

The smiling is all directed at Jessica Lange, who is worth smiling at, but that means this falls under the heading of sexy smiling, which I don’t want to see on a gorilla. Certainly not that close up. I feel as if I now know what it is like to have sex with Rick Baker, and this is not knowledge I have ever sought. Not consciously.

In some scenes, Jessica Lange is quite good, good enough to make us think she might be very good if her director was looking out for her, at all. Publicity genius de Laurentiis sold her as a completely untrained model, because everybody hates looking at trained actors, especially in films. Here’s the untrained model speaking about her work in The Creation of King Kong by Bruce Bahrenburg (the film was too epic for a mere “Making of”) ~

“How do you play to a huge ape who is romantically attached to you? I had to do some substitution and personalisation.”

Yep, no signs of training there.

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Unfortunately for Lange, she is required to act batshit apeshit  insane half the time, writhing orgasmically as Kong blows on her to dry her off after she’s showered in a waterfall. Because warm air is sexy, always, and apparently nobody in this movie has a sense of smell, or maybe gorilla breath really is deliciously aphrodisiac. I have seen a zoo gorilla cram its mouth with fresh shit to scare off some annoying kids, so I am totally prepared to believe that gorilla breath makes women horny. It stands to reason.

Then there’s the undressing scene, which plays like curiosity, mainly, in the original. even if Max Steiner did scribble the title “Stinkfinger” on the sheet music for this scene (isn’t that a Frank Zappa composition?). Here it’s full-on rape-ape mode, with Rick Baker grinning as meaningfully as he knows how, mind bent upon the anatomically impossible. John Guillermin was always a director who would go a good bit out of his way to get some tits into his film. My old friend Lawrie knew him, and knew of his casting couch inclinations. I once read a Radio Times review of Guillermin’s EL CONDOR out loud to Lawrie: “Nasty, slick and superficial.” “That’s John!” he cried in delight. Like meeting an old friend.

Guillermin DID have considerable visual talent, seen in RAPTURE (1965) particularly, and I have a suspicion he was badly let down by his ape unit here. Lots of eye-level shots and long-shots which seem designed to make Rick Baker look smaller than he really is rather than, as Guillermin probably hoped, a bit taller.

If enthusiastic bumbler Carlo Rambaldi couldn’t manage a convincing giant ape, and he couldn’t, he and Glen Robinson did cobble together a pretty good pair of mechanical hands. I guess the opportunity of nudging Jessica Lange’s mammaries with a massive pneumatic digit brought out the best in them. It’s not an opportunity likely to come your way twice in a lifetime.

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MONKEYS AT TYPEWRITERS

Supposedly, a team comprising Bob Fosse, Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon were at once point going to direct and write this monstrosity. Since the film shows every sign of being cursed, I don’t think that would have saved it, but Lorenzo Semple’s screenplay is pretty stinky. He kind of solves the question of “How could they ship Kong back to America?” with the oil tanker, but that still leaves the question of how they winched him aboard, and that question comes more sharply into focus with the surrounding mysteries cleared up. In the 2005 version, the whole issue is elided during intermission, which my friend Sam Dale objected to. “But isn’t that the case, basically, in the original?” I asked. “Yes, but the original goes like a train,” he countered. With pre-code pace, the audience has less time to ponder, and the movie is more like an unexpectedly genius potboiler, rather than a wildly implausible simian version of Heart of Darkness.

Since the Dino KONG is a super-epic, it can’t afford to get zippy at any point, so everything is gone over in great detail and at great length, although this doesn’t help it make sense. “I remember as a little girl,” said Fiona, “I was quite confused about her attitude to Kong.” In the original, Fay Wray is quite simply scared of the big guy. Admittedly, it always seemed that more could be done with this relationship. Entirely thanks to Willis H. O’Brien’s artistry, Kong had become a sympathetic character, chewing people’s heads off, smushing them into the dirt, and dropping them from skyscrapers, but essentially virtuous. An unscripted warmth of feeling was created between the audience and the ape (particularly in the moment where he hurts his finger, a beat missing here).

In the Peter Jackson arse-marathon, the relationship is tastefully desexualized, so that Kong becomes a big devoted pet, and on that level it’s extremely moving, thanks to great work from Naomi Watts and excellent animation (sorry, Andy Serkis, that’s not you up there). The seventies attempt ramps up the pre-code smut factor to an uncomfortable level. In 1933, Kong barely enjoyed a moment’s peace with Fay Wray without some Cretaceous interloper barging in, which was again useful to stop the audience wondering about stuff that shouldn’t be on normal people’s minds anyway. Here, there’s only a giant rubber snake, showing up at the exact optimum moment to serve as a Freudian symbol.

Of all Semple’s changes, the one most offensive to a schoolboy viewer is the deletion of all the dinosaurs, clear evidence that the film did not love its audience and did not have the technical confidence possessed of the filmmakers of forty-some years earlier. But the stupidest one is probably the ship’s crew setting a trap for Kong but then bolting the door of the big gate to prevent him reaching it. “Are you sure he can break through this thing?” somebody thinks to ask. “Just bolt it halfway.” is the compromise choice. I guess they figured leaving it open would MAKE THE GORILLA SUSPICIOUS.

One thing I kind of approve of, even though it’s also kind of awful, is the very seventies unhappy ending. After the Peckinpah bloodbath with Kong turned into a pink plush toy by his own spurting gore, Jessica doesn’t even get folded into the big strong arms of Jeff Bridges as consolation. He rather inexplicably hangs back, apparently feeling that this ordeal has turned her into a star, which is what she always wanted, and so she doesn’t need him, even though she is obviously distraught and does need him. It’s some kind of NETWORK type dark satire thing and was certainly incomprehensible to me as a kid, and seems unclear now. Maybe she should have grabbed a microphone and said “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine,” or “Mrs Norman Kong,” or something.

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GRODIN TO THE MAX

Poor Charles Grodin — in his lovely memoir he talks movingly about his childhood love of KING KONG and how he really didn’t want to be a bad guy in the movie. He particularly didn’t want to be the guy who gets killed by Kong and the audience cheers. They shot a scene where Kong seems to step on him but in fact just crushes his stetson. Audiences hated it. So they recut it to make it look — rather unconvincingly — as if Kong had indeed trodden on Grodin. But then they include a shot, a few seconds later, where Grodin, minus his stetson, appears to be fleeing alongside Jess & Jeff. That is what I believe is known as a continuity error.

They also cut out Grodin’s best bit of acting. Mostly in the film he impresses just with how unlike Charles Grodin he is. He has a moustache which obscures the distinctively curled upper lip (almost but not quite a sneer — just a look of “I can’t believe this,” always incipient if not actually manifest) and a sort of spray-on skull cap of hair like an Action Man doll. And he’s playing a loud jerk, which is not his usual mode. But when he sees Kong for the first time, he reacts in a way which is absolutely the essence of Grodinism, without in any way stepping out of character. It’s extremely funny, and because it’s so comic, even though it is completely truthful and should therefore be completely believable, it is kind of wrong for the film, so they cut it.

They were right to cut it. On the other hand, if they had left it in it would have been better than everything else in the film.

Charles Grodin’s best acting from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anyhow, in The Creation of King Kong, there is a fair bit about Grodin complaining that his trailer isn’t as big as Jessica’s trailer or Jeff’s trailer — for a publicity book, it makes the surprising choice of making nearly all the principles look bad at one time or another. The seventies was a different era.

Buy KONGS —
King Kong (1976)
King Kong [Blu-ray]
King Kong